Think of Sweden and hip-hop is probably not what springs to mind. It’s a bit like the Germans turning their hands to sushi, or finding out that the US fields a fine cricket team. But once you’ve got over the appropriation of a black street dance form into something – well – blonde, there is much to love about Swedish dance company Bounce’s show, Insane in the Brain at the Peacock Theatre.
The title is lifted from the Cypress Hill song of the same name, and the story a response to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of those apparently iconic narratives that ticks all the charades boxes: book, play, film, and now dance. Sweden, it seems, took Cuckoo’s Nest to heart, and it played in cinemas there for twelve years straight: something about the heat of Jack Nicholson’s clash with the icy tundra of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched obviously struck a chord.
Insane in the Brain is an altogether different beast from the film, and to say that it lacks the latter’s psychological subtlety would be like complaining that gravadlax is too fishy. This is big and bold dance theatre full of brazen effects, which firmly refocuses the narrative as anti-authoritarian struggle.
To a stonking soundtrack from, among others, Missy Elliott and Dizzee Rascal, the “mad” are given vivid kinetic symptoms: an OCD patient’s ticcy antics are worked up to a frenzied repetitive dance, and the apparent muteness of Chief, the watchful Native American, is transposed to dance’s equivalent, the wheelchair user. Nurse Ratched’s fondness for over-loud smooth classics, which she remorselessly pipes through to her patients, is shifted to mandatory ballet lessons at the barre, giving the maverick McMurphy (Frederik Rydman) ample opportunity to goof around in class.
The implication here is that where ballet’s highly codified system suppresses individuality, hip-hop liberates. This mistrust of the classical tradition is slapped home in the final reckoning, where the patients are brutally brought back into line to the accompaniment of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. Whilst this opposition, might be somewhat crass, hip-hop being as exacting and codified a discipline as any, it’s hard not to be seduced by the company’s enthusiasm for contemporary musical styles: the Ratched vs McMurphy battle is played out to a highly strung tango, and the inmates’ brief taste of freedom and self-expression is a filmy excuse to belt out some great crowd-pleasers, from bhangra to Flashdance and Fame.
However, it is when the company work within severe physical limitations that they produce the show’s most surprising routines: the number that Chief (Daniel Koivunen) and McMurphy perform on crutches to Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself” is virtuoso stuff. The lighting and set design add immeasurably to the experience – in one scene the dancers are working in the dark but individual moves, sometimes in mid-air, are picked out as though by a searchlight. In another the inmates are hung up for punishment on a dance wall like insects spiked through in a display case, with overtones of Calvary thrown in for good measure. The performers then proceed to enact an aerial dance by bungee, where the ropes allowing them to fly are also cruelly yanking them back to their starting place. Off the wall, indeed.
Ironically, the point in the show at which the audience got firmly behind it was when there were no performers on stage at all. The inmates stage a breakout and end up – of course – in the audience, being anarchic with some popcorn. We are then all treated to a little celluloid gem called “Tramptown”, a Chaplinesque silent movie that snaps into a hip-hop battle between the starchy Edwardian middle classes and the sub-prime low-lifes who have broken into their house. It’s particularly funny to see the tightly corseted, full-skirted matron busting the sort of moves that one would ordinarily associate with entirely different streetwear.
At times, the show feels like the coolest pyjama party ever, but there are salutary moments about the abuse of power over the vulnerable that are truly shocking, not least because it’s a paradigm present in so many institutions, from Abu Ghraib to the Catholic Church. If Brain is totally mental in the execution, it’s brilliantly sane in the planning.
Insane in the Brain runs at the Peacock Theatre, London WC2 until 27 June.